Joint Information Center–Arkansas pipeline spill adds to uncertainty about government response communications

Most government communicators who need to respond to emergencies need to understand the Joint Information Center (JIC)concept. Private companies,  particularly those likely to collaborate with government response organizations should (but often don’t) know about the JIC (pronounced JICK). As an adjunct to the National Incident Management System and the Incident Command System, the JIC has become standard procedure for coordinating public information when multiple agencies or entities are involved.

But, this well-honed and highly effective system was undermined first in the aftermath of Katrina when the Department of Homeland Security came out with Emergency Support Function 15 for External Affairs. Without going into details, as a structure for coordinating communications among multiple agencies, this was a complete joke. As a means to allow the White House to assume complete control of the communications in a disaster, it was and is highly effective.

For 20 years, after ExxonValdez, the oil industry and Coast Guard practiced the JIC procedures in annual drills. So when Deepwater Horizon occurred in April 2010, it was natural that a JIC was established with all parties including BP. At the end of May that year, everything changed. Media and political pressure on the White House threatened another Katrina-like political blowback and they responded with implementing ESF 15 and threw BP out of the communications. Ever since then, the status of the JIC has been uncertain and those needing to know how the feds will organize communications when they are involved in responding has been confusing.

Now the Arkansas Mayflower pipeline spill is adding to the confusion. Not everyone may be interested in the JIC, its future, and how to coordinate communications among multiple government agencies, but if you are, I suggest you have a close look at what is going on. Lots of questions raised, and since I blogged on it over at Emergency Management, I won’t repeat myself.

The good thing here is that ExxonMobil (a former client and user of PIER) appears to be doing an exceptionally thorough job of communicating. But, the position taken (or not taken) by members of Unified Command in the JIC which appears to be completely led by ExxonMobil is what is causing confusion.

The point to me is this: what creates public trust? Does a JIC led by the Responsible Party create trust? No, not when the government is seen as second tier player. Does the JIC led by the government and where the Responsible Party is thrown under the bus lead to trust? No. The only thing that really contributes to trust is good, fast, accurate honest information coming from a collaborative team that reiterates “we are in this together.”

I hope the old JIC concept comes back and sooner than later.